Obituary: Babrak Karmal

In the catalogue of betrayal that makes up the history of Afghanistan, Babrak Karmal will always be condemned as the man put in power by the Soviet invasion of 1979. According to KGB defectors he had been recruited as an agent many years earlier; after the Soviet Union decided to replace him with Najibullah in 1986 he went to Moscow for "medical treatment", never to return, apart from a brief visit in 1991. Many of his fellow Communists in the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan hated him just as bitterly, though for entirely different reasons.

A traitor Karmal may have been, but his departure from power did not bring peace to Afghanistan. Najibullah was no more able than his predecessor to defeat the mujahedin uprising or, after the Soviet troop withdrawal in 1989, to reach an accommodation with its leaders, and in 1992 he took refuge with the United Nations in Kabul following an unsuccessful attempt to flee the country.

The mujahedin destroyed the capital in the internecine fighting which began the moment they took over. A few weeks ago they in turn were driven out by a new insurgent movement, the Taliban, whose first act on capturing Kabul was to drag Najibullah from the UN compound where he had been a virtual prisoner for more than four years and hang him. Compared to that, Karmal's fate, which was to die of liver cancer in exile, must have seemed preferable.

Karmal was one of a succession of leaders whose impatience to bring Afghanistan into the modern age led them to force imported left-wing ideas on the country, only to be defeated by its ingrained tribalism and conservatism. In the bloody progress from monarchy in the 1970s to rural Islamic fundamentalism today - though along the way Afghanistan has virtually ceased to exist as a nation - he can be seen as a transitional figure.

The son of an army general and provincial governor, Karmal came from the Durrani clan which had ruled Afghanistan for more than two centuries, but became intoxicated by the left-wing ideas circulating during a period of mild liberalisation under King Zahir Shah. By the time the inevitable crackdown came in 1953 he was sufficiently prominent a student firebrand to be jailed for three years. In 1965, after military service and completing his law degree, he was one of the founders of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA).

The PDPA was soon to split into two factions, one consisting mainly of rural purists, the other - led by Karmal - of more middle-class rebels. Mutual enmity increased after the king's cousin, Daoud, seized power in 1973 amid much fashionable left-wing rhetoric, and brought Karmal and many of his associates into office. When Daoud was killed in a genuinely left-wing coup five years later, Karmal found it prudent to accept the ambassadorship in Prague, where his KGB recruitment is presumed to have occurred.

His absence proved fortunate: the Stalinism of the new regime, run by the opposing PDPA faction, quickly outraged the country. The first leader of the revolution, Nur Mohammed Taraki, was murdered, and Hafizuliah Amin, considered a "smooth-talking fascist" by Moscow, took over. By December 1979 the Soviet Union had had enough, and sent its troops and tanks to impose a more "reliable" leader.

That decision was fatal, both for Karmal and Afghanistan. It put the country at the centre of the Cold War, spurring the West to pour billions of dollars into the mujahedin resistance and Moscow to arm its client regime equally heavily. The war engulfed the Afghan countryside, which until then had remained little affected by political goings-on in Kabul, and the huge stockpile of weaponry built up in those years has kept conflict never-ending.

Karmal himself never recovered from the taint of being installed by a foreign power, and that knowledge appeared to tell on him. In different circumstances he might have governed Afghanistan better than many of his predecessors or successors, but his past made it impossible for him to unite the ruling party, while his drunkenness and womanising made him the subject of jokes in Kabul. It may have been as much a relief to him as to the Kremlin when he was replaced.

Whatever the humiliation he felt during his years of obscurity in exile, Babrak Karmal had the consolation of living out his natural span. It is a privilege rarely enjoyed by Afghan leaders from any period of history.

Raymond Whitaker

Babrak Karmal, politician: born c1929; Member of Parliament, Afghanistan 1965-73; Leader, Parcham Party 1967-77; Deputy Leader, People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) 1977-78; Ambassador to Czech-oslovakia 1978- 79; President of Afghanistan 1979-86; died Moscow 3 December 1996.

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